This year, Star Citizen’s annual convention CitizenCon was held online, as many events these days are for obvious and now-boilerplate reasons. This was a good choice as opposed to not having it at all, as CC is one of the few times a year that CIG offers an uninterrupted look behind the curtain that proves that, yes, progress is being made and no, it’s not entirely about announcing new ships.
The biggest upcoming release that Citizens are waiting for is Pyro. Now that the Stanton system has been deemed more or less complete, it’s time for another planetary zone to come on-line, bringing with it jump-points, a new look and feel than what we’re used to, and significantly less legal oversight from the UEE.
The first panel we had on Saturday was “Life in the ‘Verse”, which served as a kind of overview into some of the major bullet points of the development of Star Citizen at this time. Due to the natural hype around the impending release of Pyro, most of the presentation was about what went into creating the system, the philosophy, and the technology. It was followed up by a look at architecture, of all things…it’s more exciting than it sounds, trust me.
This panel was run by Todd Papy, Star Citizen Live Game Director, Ian Leyland, Art Director, and Dave Haddock, Narrative Director.
Back during CitizenCon 2949 we saw the first iteration of Pyro as a Carrack left the new planet of Microtech and approached an artificial jump-gate.
While this blew the socks off of the audience, this year we learned that the decision had been made to represent jump-points with a more “honest” representation of what a jump-point really is: a naturally occurring, non-man-made phenomenon.
According to the Star Citizen lore, in the early days of humanity’s ventures into the furthest reaches of it’s own solar system, a supply ship, the Goodman, had been lost somewhere between Neptune and Pluto in the year 2262. Ten years later, the first naturally occurring jump-point was identified in this region, leading explorers to the Goodman. The discovery of this jump-point kicked off a frenzy of exploration, revealing an entire network of stable wormholes that allowed humanity to spread out amongst the stars, and eventually into contact with several alien species.
One of the apparent reasons of ditching the technological representation of a jump-point was to solve an issue between systems like lawless Pyro being connected to a more lawful system like Stanton. While there is a major jump-point between Stanton and Pyro, it’s difficult to imagine that pirates would be using the same traffic lanes that legitimate ships would use, and that brings up the concept of smaller, less stable jump-points between the two, leading to what Dave Haddock termed the “Swiss Cheese Approach” to connecting the two systems: one major, publicly known and well patrolled jump-point, and several minor, less well-known (and therefor less well patrolled) “pirate points”.
Jump-points now utilize the iterative cloud technology that was first revealed for the gas giant Crusader.
The panel discussed a bit on how the jump-point cloud technology worked, which involves a “parent” and “child” cloud system. The parent is used for establishing shots from a distance, and give the jump-point its signature look. The child clouds are extrapolated from an internal segment of the parent, and are the volume that the player actually flies through when passing from one system to the next.
Points were made about the design of the jump-points on either side of the traversal. The jump to Stanton is rendered in a cool blue with gentle, whispy clouds streaming along magnetic lines emanating from the heart of the jump-point. This is meant to invoke a sense of peace and calm of the lawful system on the other side. In contrast, the jump-point leading to Pyro is red-orange, chaotic, and claustrophobic, invoking a sense of paranoia that one could spin out of control and into the dense clouds between system, lost forever.
The presentation didn’t talk about the actual traversal of jump points; the previous CitizenCon offered a look into the way a pilot would have to navigate through a twisty tunnel between systems, but with the changes to the visuals on either side of the wormhole, it remains to be seen if we’ll still need to pilot ourselves through the phenomenon or if the jump will be instantaneous.
The panel then shifted to discussions on designing key aspects of Pyro that players will experience. A lot of this was part technical, part artistic, and there’s not a whole lot that I can write about here that A) wouldn’t just transcribe what was said or B) be writing for writing’s sake.
We got a look at how the stations in Pyro were designed. At one point this system was lawful, but after decades of corporate strip-mining, the system was abandoned along with most of the former infrastructure. With no ongoing value to industry, pirates, refugees, and squatters seeking to exist outside of the UEE moved in. Without the resources of a major financial empire, the stations that these groups inhabit are in constant danger of falling apart.
Internally, the designers worked with similar floor-plans to those found in the stations in the Stanton system, but upped the grunge and wear, added more environmental objects to impart a more haphazard feeling, and dialed down the polish. The result is a run-down, cold, and dark series of corridors and decks, punctuated by hubs of heat, light, and activity where the station’s inhabitants congregate for food and trading.
One interesting fact mentioned in the discussion was that in places like the one represented above, where we can see open fire in the background, the natural heat of the congregated population in combination with artificial heat generated from electrical device would rise to the more open, colder rafters above. As we would expect in the real world, this would cause condensation and eventually a light mist or even “rain” inside the cavernous space, which explains why the ground is wet inside a space station in the image above. This is another example of the extent to which Star Citizen is becoming more of a simulation than a game.
Moving on, the panel discussed the process for designing planets and moons. Pyro has 6 stellar bodies, most of which are generally uninhabitable due to system-wide events and the violent M-class star at its center. Still, players will be able to visit these bodies for missions or harvesting, and can even visit some of the colonies that are maintained by those who prefer to have solid ground beneath their feet.
There were other panels during the Saturday event which talked about the new Gen 12/Vulkan renderer and the ever-improving planet generation technology, but we got to see several examples of planets and moons during this first panel via a “sizzle reel” of ships flying through atmospheres and through various environments within the Pyro system.
Next, the panel discussed colonies and outposts. Outposts have been present in the Stanton system for several patches, and have served as key locations for pickup and delivery missions, places to buy and sell commodities, and even flash-points for dynamic PvP events. These locations are all fairly prefab and look more or less the same, evoking a sense that they were temporary structures placed for some need or another, but weren’t fit for long-term habitation.
The new settlement buildings are being designed for more a permanent presence. Each building piece is modular, and the pieces can snap together to create specific layouts or to enable procedural generation, internal continuity, and aesthetically pleasing appearances.
The discussion talked about how these parts were designed, how they were used to place buildings and settlements, and even how the interiors are created from snap-in, drag-and-drop elements that can create buildings that look functional and “lived in” in order to impart the sense of purpose implied by each structure (a farm, a merchant’s house, a marketplace, etc).
Every CitizenCon has a new mission to showcase (I have never actually done any of these missions, by the way). There’s actually a whole lot of stuff to talk about in terms of what made this new mission possible, from server meshing to improved AI using the often-mentioned “subsumption” system that gives NPCs 24 hour “need and want” cycles.
This mission was run three times, each with a different approach. Here, the player is looking to acquire a Hadesian artifact, and has learned that there’s one available at this outpost on one of the planets of Pyro.
Each run through, the player took a different approach to obtaining this artifact. The first was to leverage her reputation with the faction that operates the outpost. Reputation is sort-of in place in the 3.14 version currently in production as a way to track our participation in the bounty-hunter role. We climb ladders of rep depending on the missions we take, which lead to more difficult and more lucrative missions in the future. Here, an advanced version of the reputation system allows the player to enter the settlement and talk with the broker.
The artifact costs 5 million UEC which is a lot for the average player. Obviously for the demo, the developers have as much cash as they need, so after agreeing to the price, they obtain the object.
That’s where the first run-through ends. For the second, the player decided that while reputation is fine, it’s expendable when it comes to obtaining a 5 million UEC artifact, so this time around, they choose violence.
This version saw the player shooting the broker, taking the artifact from under the counter, and then shooting her way out of the settlement on her way back to her 400i. Unfortunately, she neglected to take out the AA missile racks that surrounded the outpost, and her ship was destroyed as she tried to leave the area.
The third attempt was more of a hybrid, and took much longer a result. Here, the player landed outside of the settlement and stealthed her way in, gun drawn. She took out guards where appropriate (and some civilian NPCs where inappropriate) and the run showcased some of the features of the new settlement design. Based on the way these buildings were placed, the player had ladders that lead to different levels of the exterior, hatches that could be opened or cut open using the multi-tool (taken from a body of a downed NPC), and boxes that could be moved using the tractor beam to allow the player to reach higher ground.
Whether it was necessary or whether it was strictly to showcase some of the settlement features, the player took the long way around, across rooftops, through crawl-spaces, though corridors, and even underneath the buildings themselves. The current settlement buildings were designed with stilts, which the panel mentioned was strictly because they didn’t have the ability to properly flatten the terrain at the time, but with that feature now in place, settlement buildings can be placed on almost any surface.
Eventually the player reached the broker’s quarters. Because of the NPC “lifecycle”, the broker was now “off duty” and was relaxing at home — until the player put a bullet in the back of his head. This part of the demo showcased a few interesting mechanics. First, the player changed out of her more militaristic armor and into civilian clothes, which was implied to allow her to “fit in” better. Second, she found a safe in the broker’s room, but didn’t have combo. A quick investigation through the room uncovered a letter which thankfully provided the passcode to the safe.
This was an interesting opener for CitizenCon this year. We all knew Pyro was “relatively imminent” since Stanton was deemed “feature complete”, but we didn’t get chapter and verse about what to expect with Pyro — or a release date. Instead, we got a look at a lot of features that were leveraged to make Pyro possible, like how jump-points will be represented, how planets and moons are designed, and “settlements 2.0” which, by the way, were also mentioned in the context of some day allowing players to create their own, using tools that are currently in the early stages of use in placing and decorating buildings we saw in this presentation.
I might write up some of the other panels, although many of them were far more technical than I think anyone was expecting — or wanted. The last panel of the day with Tony Z — usually the highlight of “behind the scenes” glimpses into the development process — was pretty dense and although it was filled with useful information, I had a hard time staying awake through a single sitting (I was watching it late at night, though).